JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Chance Rogers has a lot of job satisfaction serving two developmentally disabled women as a Dawn of Hope direct support professional — but at less than 11 bucks an hour, job satisfaction has its limits.

“I was in the dental field for 17 years, made a lot more money than I’m making now for sure,” Rogers said Tuesday. “But my heart didn’t have anything to fill it in the afternoons when I was going home.

“This job doesn’t make as much money but every night that I go home I know that my heart’s full. These people are my family and sometimes it’s the only family that they have.” 

Thanks to a $38 million from the Tennessee legislature, Rogers’s heart won’t be the only thing that’s full. Along with an additional two-thirds federal match, that recurring investment will raise the starting wage for DSPs, as they’re known, from $10 to $12.50 an hour statewide.

Chance Rogers outside the home where she helps support two women who are Dawn of Hope clients.

Dawn of Hope Executive Director Steve Cox said he hopes the long-sought increase yields a couple results for his organization and others that are constantly understaffed. In Dawn of Hope’s case, with about 35-45 vacant positions on average.

One hope is that it allows more people who like the work to quit having to choose between a living wage and a job they care about. But he said the more important outcome would be for the people served, whose special needs very often make transitions from one DSP to another very hard to endure.

“Most of all we hope that it contributes to a greater continuity and consistency of care that we provide to the people that we support,” Cox said.

He’s hoping Dawn of Hope will be able to put $2.50 an hour increases into all DSPs’ pay packets when the dust settles in terms of details.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come to me and say ‘Steve, we’d love to stay here, we love Dawn of Hope, we love the work we do, but we can’t put food on the table I’ve got to pay the bills, I’ve got to pay the rent, I got a car payment.”

Rogers has seen the same thing — and seen the impact on clients.

“Once an individual gets attached to you, it’s really traumatic when you leave,” she said. “I have seen some really awesome DSPs leave just because their family has to have more money or they have to have more money.

Keisha Austin, right, with Max Brandon at a Dawn of Hope home in Piney Flats, Tenn.

“The only other way to get that is to work 16 hours a day, and then you’re taking time away from your family.”

State Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) has long pushed for a change. Serving a district that is home to Greene Valley Developmental Center, he said he saw the positives of a wage and benefit structure that allowed people serving those with disabilities a viable opportunity to make a career of it.

“I think that gives us an opportunity to create continuity within this level of service.” 

He said the work is hard and that it represents the essence of one role of government – helping people who can’t help themselves.

“These caregivers are truly doing the work that our state needs them to do and it’s good to be able to say thank you with a little bit of a wage increase,” Hawk said.

Even with strong revenues this year, Hawk said the request wasn’t included in Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed budget or the first legislative response to it. He said the strongest push came from the House.

“I’ll give all the credit to our house finance committee members who really stepped up and said this is something we’re going to go to the mat on,” Hawk said. 

In the final budget give and take, “there was probably a lot given up on the House side in order to bring the governor on board to get this two dollar and fifty cent raise,” he added.

Dawn of Hope’s Cox said he believes the bump could be “a life changer” for DSPs, but Tennessee Community Organizations, the lobbying group for the industry, will continue its campaign to get the wage to $15 an hour.

Steve Cox

He said this year’s bill had broad support, much of it spearheaded by East Tennessee legislators including Hawk.

“We need to be at 15 or above for direct support professionals but again we’re so appreciative of the state’s legislature realizing how important how critical DSPs are to people with disabilities,” Cox said.

Hawk said he agrees the people in the field deserve more.

“I think that gives us an opportunity to create continuity within this level of service,” he said.

The federal government matches the funds nearly two to one, and Hawk is hopeful this year’s accomplishment can be a step on a ladder rather than the top rung.

“We’re looking at trying to do that again in the next year or two,” he said. 

“I know the heart of the folks working on our House finance committee, they want to be able to find those dollars in years to come.” 

Rogers is happy about the adjustment but definitely thinks she and her colleagues are worth more.

She said the job is much harder than her previous one. It includes heavy lifting – one of the residents in her home is a quadriplegic and needs to be transferred. Supporting behaviors is another challenge. 

“Sometimes they have bad days and you have to know how to deal with that,” she said. “Here you’re more emotional support. You’re physical support. You’re everything to them.” 

She thinks the pay bump will help at an agency where Cox said upper management has been trained in direct support and members of that team have pulled shifts themselves. 

“Now that we’re starting with $12.50 I feel like there’s a lot more people going to come on and stay on,” Rogers said.

“It would be awesome if they could just come see what we do for one day – and then they’d be like, ‘oh, you need at least $20 an hour.’ Because it’s a lot.” 

Then again, there are some fringe benefits few jobs can match.

“Every day I come in there’s a smile waiting for me and there’s always, I love you at the end of the day.”